Dec. 12, 2022

The Xi'an Incident

The Xi'an Incident

December 12, 1936. During the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek is kidnapped, sparking a political reckoning that unites the Chinese against a common enemy: Japan.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of April 12th, 1927 in Shanghai, China.

At the sound of a distant whistle, hordes of gangsters, known as the Green Gang, flood the city’s streets. In their hands are a mix of batons, guns, and swords. At the head of the pack is one of the gang’s leaders, Du Yuesheng.

Normally, the Green Gang focuses on Shanghai’s drug and sex trade. But when called upon, and compensated, the Gang often serves as the enforcement arm of China’s ruling Nationalist Party. Recently, Yuesheng and his gang agreed to help Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek purge the city of communists. And today, they take action. 

Throughout the streets, members of the Green Gang storm the area’s communist-controlled buildings and safe houses and open fire on their inhabitants.

In front of him, a group of Yuesheng’s gangsters beat down the door of a communist-controlled district office. Yuesheng grips his gun in anticipation.

As the door in front of him bursts open, Yuesheng runs inside, his gun raised. Quickly, he seizes as many workers as he can at gunpoint, and marches them into the street.

There, a line of gangsters already stands waiting, swords at their sides. Yuesheng pushes the workers toward them. And as he does, he sees the residents have already flooded the streets in confusion. Yuesheng smiles. He’s happy to have an audience. He presumes public executions will satisfy the Nationalist Party even more than quiet killings.

As the gangsters raise their blades above the workers' heads, they look over at Yuesheng for confirmation to follow through. Yuesheng pauses, listening to the startled screams of innocent spectators. Then, he nods, and the swords come down.

In 1912, a nationalist democratic revolt overthrew China’s Qing dynasty. Afterward, two main political parties came out on top: the Soviet-backed Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek.

For the first six years of its history, the Chinese Communists comprised the left wing of the country’s nationalist movement. But the parties have since drifted apart, and Chiang Kai-Shek believes the communists are now a serious threat to the Nationalists’ control of the government. So, in 1927, he decides to violently suppress the party.

During a bloody crackdown in Shanghai, hundreds are arrested or killed. Exact figures will remain unknown, but some will say as many as 10,000 are executed. Over the next month, the nationalists will continue a purge of all communists in areas under their control, killing tens of thousands more in a campaign dubbed the White Terror.

The Shanghai Massacre, or April 12th Purge, as the Chinese will remember the slaughter, will further split the parties and push them into civil war. For years, Chiang Kai-Shek will vow to exterminate Communism and unite the republic under the Nationalist Party. But, in the face of a Japanese invasion, Chiang Kai-Shek's stubborn focus on the communists will provoke widespread unrest, leading two of his own generals to kidnap him, sparking a political reckoning with far-reaching consequences on December 12th, 1936.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is December 12th, 1936: The Xi’an Incident.

Act One: A Stubborn Leader

It’s April 1931 in Nanjing, the capital of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, four years into the Chinese Civil War.

Inside his office in the Presidential Palace, Chiang meets with his generals to discuss one of the most pressing issues facing the republic: a potential Japanese invasion.

Last year, Japan fell on hard times. America’s Great Depression triggered an economic downturn that has made Japan desperate for more land and resources. Determined to spread their empire, Japan set its sights on a province in Northeastern China called Manchuria.

The resource-rich Manchuria has long been a point of contention between China and Japan. For years, it operated under the control of a Chinese warlord, named Zhang Zuolin. After the nationalist movement overthrew China’s Qing dynasty twenty years prior, local warlords like Zhang rose to power. Many of these warlords controlled their territories without acknowledging the nationalist government. A decade ago, Chiang Kai-Shek began a campaign against the warlords, determined to unite the country under Nationalist rule.

In other provinces, Chiang Kai-Shek found quick success. But Zhang Zoulin had Japan on his side. In exchange for helping him maintain his power, Zhang tolerated Japanese encroachment on Manchurian territory. But the warlord still struggled to defend Manchuria against Chiang’s Nationalist Army. Three years ago, Zhang’s reign came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by Japanese agents. The reason for his assassination remains unclear, but many speculate it was punishment for his poor defense against Chiang Kai-Shek.

After Zhang’s death, his eldest son became Manchuria’s new warlord and in an about-face shunned Japan. Instead, Zhang Xueliang became loyal to Chiang Kai-Shek and joined the Nationalist Party. Now, the younger Zhang is one of Chiang Kai-Shek’s closest generals.

Today, Chiang sits across from General Zhang as the warlord shares his concerns about the situation in Manchuria. He’s convinced a Japanese invasion is imminent, and he wants to make sure that Chiang Kai-Shek helps defend his homeland.

But before the general can finish his plea, Chiang interrupts him. He reassures the general that he sees Manchuria as part of the Republic of China, and an invasion of Manchuria would qualify as an invasion of China. But he does not share the strength of Zhang’s concern nor does he want to start another war when one is already raging.

For the past four years, Chiang’s energy has been focused on the Chinese Civil War and exterminating the Chinese Communists to unite China under the Nationalist Party.

He tells the general that that's where he wants to keep his focus. But he asks Zhang to keep him updated on the situation in Manchuria. Publicly, Chiang re-asserts the Republic of China’s sovereignty over Manchuria, and he hopes this will be enough to deter the Japanese. But, ultimately, he decides to take a passive position against Japan. To Chiang, the communists seem like a far greater threat.

So while Chiang’s forces remain elsewhere, the Japanese plot their invasion of Manchuria. During the summer, they spread anti-Chinese propaganda and rally the Japanese public around an invasion. General Zhang and other Nationalist leaders plead for Chiang Kai-Shek to shift his focus to Manchuria. But Chiang refuses. He continues to dedicate all of his energy and resources to military campaigns against the Communist Party.

And then, only five months after his meeting with General Zhang, the Japanese invade Manchuria. Within weeks, the province is under Japanese control. To create an air of legitimacy, the Japanese install a puppet government with Puyi, the last Emperor of China, as its head of state.

Still, Chiang refuses to divert his focus from the Chinese Civil War. He’s convinced that communism is a cancer, while the Japanese represent only a superficial wound. He holds fast to his slogan, “First internal pacification, then external resistance.”

But Chiang’s aversion to war with Japan proves unpopular, even within his Nationalist Party. Many worry that the Japanese will use Manchuria as a base for a full invasion of China. And as their occupation stretches on, the Japanese take over more of Northern China, sparking a sense of national crisis.

Soon, communist leaders begin to call for unity against Japanese aggression. And repeatedly, General Zhang and other Nationalist leaders urge Chiang Kai-Shek to join forces with the Communists. But he refuses. Chiang is convinced that they would never be true comrades in war, and any allyship would be temporary and in the interest of bolstering the Communist Party.

Chiang Kai-Shek’s appeasement toward Japan upsets few within his ranks more than General Zhang. As Japan occupied Manchuria, General Zhang was ordered to retreat from his homeland and allow the country that assassinated his father to take over his territory. General Zhang politically opposes the Communist Party, but he’s convinced that it’s time to form an alliance to resist Japanese aggression. And eventually, he sees no other option, but to take matters into his own hands.

After years of Chiang’s inaction, General Zhang will secretly establish a personal dialogue with Communist leaders in hopes of forming a united front against the Japanese. Unbeknownst to Chiang Kai-shek, the general will spend two years negotiating an end to the hostilities between the Communists and the Nationalists. And then, with the cooperation of another Nationalist general, General Zhang will find the perfect moment to force their leader’s hand.

Act Two: An Old War Ends

It’s the early morning of December 12th, 1936 at a palace on the outskirts of the communist stronghold of Xi’an.

Inside, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek tosses and turns in his bed. His mind races with plans for an upcoming military offensive.

For months, Nationalist forces have been unable to wipe out the communist base in Xi’an. Last year, Chiang ordered the Manchurian warlord, and general, Zhang Xueliang to join forces with Yang Hucheng, another Chinese warlord turned Nationalist general. Together, they were supposed to use their troops to destroy the communist forces near Xi’an. But that still hasn’t happened.

Frustrated by their lack of progress, Chiang traveled to the city eight days ago, ready to oversee the military campaign himself. Since arrival, both General Zhang and General Yang have resisted his calls for immediate military action. Instead, they have tried to persuade Chiang to join forces with the communists and shift their attention to the invading Japanese. But Chiang has ignored their pleas and pushed forward with plans for a major assault on Xi’an’s communist base. Now, he’s just hours away from setting the attack in motion.

But as Chiang lies in bed, the sound of nearby footsteps interrupts his contemplation. Immediately, Chiang jolts to attention. No one should be coming into his quarters at this time of night.

But before he can prepare himself, several men burst into his room. Chiang recognizes them as the bodyguards of General Zhang and General Yang. For a moment, he relaxes as he registers their familiar faces. But then the bodyguards seize him, and Chiang realizes they aren’t here to protect him.

Quickly, Chiang is captured and sent to General Yang’s nearby headquarters where he’s put under house arrest. There, he’s greeted by Generals Yang and Zhang, the masterminds behind his kidnapping. Quickly, they assure him that they mean him no harm - they just want to talk. But, as General Zhang tries to speak to him, Chiang flies into a fury. He refuses to enter into any negotiations under duress. And instead, he demands to be sent back to Nanjing or be killed.

General Zhang tries to calm the leader. He explains that Chiang’s arrest is on behalf of the public, most of whom want an end to the civil war and to unify Chinese forces against Japan. The general urges Chiang to listen to this public opinion and turn his attention toward the Japanese invasion. Again, Chiang refuses.

As Chiang and his generals struggle to reach an agreement, communist forces in Xi’an send a telegram to the Nationalist government in Nanjing. In it, they demand an immediate end to the civil war against the Communist Party and call for the Nationalists to adopt an anti-Japanese stance. This telegram along with conflicting reports about Chiang’s capture sends the Nationalist government into disarray. For days, Nationalist officials struggle to figure out the correct response, and all the while, Chiang continues to resist negotiations in Xi’an.

As Chiang’s arrest drags on, many outside, and within, the Nationalist Party demand for him to be killed. In the Communist Party, leader Mao Zedong reasons that Chiang has owed the communists “a blood debt as high as a mountain” ever since he led the Shanghai Massacre a decade ago. But General Zhang pays the calls for violence no heed. Privately and publicly, he maintains that his intention is to change policy, not inflict harm.

But still, Chiang refuses to give in to any of the communists’ demands. After days of fruitless back and forth, General Zhang brings in a communist delegation to try their hand at negotiations. But they too have no luck with the Nationalist leader. It’s not until eleven days after his capture that progress is finally made.

On December 22nd, Chiang’s wife Mei-ling arrives in Xi’an, determined to secure her husband’s release. A commanding political force herself, Mei-Ling takes up negotiations with General Zhang and the communist leaders. And within 48 hours of her arrival, the two sides reach an informal agreement; Chiang Kai-Shek agrees to end the civil war and form a united front against Japan, and General Zhang agrees to set him free.

This thirteen-day crisis will come to be known as the Xi’an Incident. After his release, Chiang will stay true to his word. And immediately, hostilities between the Nationalists and Communists will cease. But Chiang will never forgive his generals for their betrayal. After returning to Nanjing together, Chiang Kai-Shek will arrest and imprison both General Zhang and General Yang. But the repercussions of the generals’ bold coup will already be in motion. In the months to follow, communist troops will merge with the Nationalist Army, and Chiang Kai-Shek will prepare to lead the unified Chinese forces into a new war.

Act Three: A New War Begins

It’s the early morning of July 8th, 1937 in a small walled town outside of Beijing called Wanping, seven months after the Xi’an Incident.

Chinese Colonel Ji Xingwen leads hundreds of soldiers out of the town’s walls, determined to hold the fortress against a sudden Japanese assault.

So far, China and Japan have not gone to war. But tensions between the powers are high, especially near Beijing. Thanks to a decades-old agreement, the Japanese are allowed to station troops near the city. But the number of troops they have there is beginning to exceed their dictated allowance. With each day, Colonel Xi and his men at Wanping have grown more suspicious of the Japanese soldiers. And then last night, came a phone call from the Japanese Army.

Just hours ago, Colonel Xi received a telephone message from the commander of the area’s Japanese forces. He claimed that one of his soldiers was missing after a military exercise, and thought the Chinese had abducted him. He demanded permission to enter Wanping and search for the soldier. But Colonel Xi refused the request. He knows none of his men kidnapped a Japanese soldier, and he didn’t want to give the Japanese any excuse to encroach on Chinese territory.

Later that night, a unit of Japanese infantry tried to breach Wanping's walled defenses, but they were repulsed by Colonel Xi and his men. Two hours later, the Japanese issued an ultimatum: if they were not allowed to enter the town within the next hour, they would open fire. Refusing to back down, Colonel Xi now leads his men to the white marble parapets of the Marco-Polo Bridge where a mass of Japanese troops are waiting.

There, Colonel Xi and his men fight furiously for hours. Quickly, Chiang-Kai Shek sends reinforcements. And by the next morning, the Chinese are able to secure the bridge.

Amidst the chaos, the missing Japanese soldier will return to his unit, claiming he got lost in the dark. But his return will do nothing to end the conflict. Instead, the Marco-Polo Bridge Incident, as this skirmish will become known, will often be regarded as the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

And soon after, Japan will launch a full-scale invasion, and Chiang Kai-Shek will finally head to war. Quickly, the Nationalist leader will send hundreds of thousands of his best-trained soldiers to defend China.

But Japan’s forces will prove formidable. Within several years, Beijing, Shanghai, and the Nationalists’ capital in Nanjing will all fall. The war will come with vicious atrocities. As many as 300,000 Chinese will be slaughtered in the Nanjing Massacre; many of them raped, drowned, burned, dismembered, or buried alive.

Eventually, this fighting will blend into World War II, and Allied support will turn the tide in favor of China. In 1945, both wars will end in quick succession. But the conflicts will permanently change East Asia. By the end of the war, Japan will lose most of its empire, including Korea and Taiwan; the Nationalist Party will be weakened irreparably by the battle; but, the Communist Party will get its second wind, re-legitimized by its wartime efforts and alliance with the Nationalists. And so in 1946, the Chinese Civil War will resume. This time, the Communists will secure a decisive victory over the Nationalists, enjoying a rise to power arguably catalyzed by the kidnapping of Chiang-Kai Shek one decade prior on December 12th, 1936.


Next on History Daily. December 13th, 1643. The tide of the English Civil War turns against King Charles I at the Battle of Alton.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.